The Big And The Small Of It
Many years ago, my previous cable company, XLO Electric, was nominated for the prestigious Plunkett Award, DuPont's annual prize for the innovative use of Teflon, named after the man who invented it. Perhaps as no surprise, the Award that year didn't go to us, but to people who had done something of far greater world consequence than just making better-sounding audio cables. Even so, just the fact of having been nominated proved to be of considerable immediate and even long-term value: Besides its obvious adverting and promotional benefits, we also gained access to information and (not then and sometimes never commercially available) test-batch products that helped us to improve both the performance and the manufacturability of our cables. As a writer's disclaimer, RSX is my new cable company, having re-established certain prior connections, also enjoys a similar materials advantage today.
Among the nomination's more important other benefits was the ability to communicate directly with some of DuPont's top chemists and research people. Hoping to take advantage of that, I once called their, at the time, head of Teflon product development, a Ph.D. chemical engineer, and asked him what, exactly, happens to a cable's dielectric materials in the process of "burning-in".
"Is there an actual change to the material's molecular structure," I asked, "or is it something else... perhaps some kind of, possibly temporary, adjustment to its dielectric constant?" To my utter amazement, not only did he not have an answer for me but he said that, until that moment, he had never even heard of the concept of materials burning in!
Yes, burn-in is real and, for those willing to listen, its effects are audible on most hi-fi electronic and electromechanical products. It's even measurable in such things as low-frequency loudspeaker drivers, and can easily be explained by the relaxation, over time and use, of the materials in the driver's spider and surround and a "softening" of its cone to affect its resonant frequency. So why had a highly-educated big company scientist never heard of it in dielectric materials – especially when DuPont publishes the dielectric constants, as well as other pertinent characteristics of their products?
I don't know for sure, but I can certainly hazard a guess: I think it may have its basis in the same sort of reasoning that results in DuPont's "test batches" (remember that I referred to them earlier) being normally of thousands of pounds of material. For these cable companies I was active with, just part of one batch might be sufficient to supply the raw materials for years of production. For large manufacturers of plastic products, though (DuPont's more normal customer base), the entire batch might amount to less than just a single day's production. (Which probably explains why, when XLO wanted to buy a particular kind of polyethylene from Union Carbide – at that time, the world's largest polyethylene producer – we were told that the minimum order to earn the regular commercial discount was 100,000 pounds, but that we could, if we wished, for a significantly higher price, buy 50-pound test bags to meet our needs.)
Big companies look to do big business. They need big money to do basic research and to establish the physical plant and administrative structures necessary to turn research into technology. That technology needs a big market to justify its required investment. Not – at least until it's proven likely to bear commercial fruit – the answer to a question as seemingly unimportant (and even debatable among the relatively tiny community of audiophiles) as "What happens to Teflon during the burn-in process." Big companies simply can't afford to ask those kinds of questions so my guess is that they don't ask them. That's why basic research tends to be done by big companies, and the products created by them are so often left to smaller companies to refine.
The high-end audio industry is a perfect example of this. The tubes and transistors that are the basic building blocks of our audio electronics were (due respect to Lee de Forest notwithstanding), all invented and built by big companies, but it's high-end audio's brilliant designers and small manufacturers who make them into the products we love. And they do that by specializing in high-performance goods for small markets and, among other things, finding answers to the small questions that allow their products to go from just ordinary to outstanding.
The development of digital audio has been the same, with the CD – the first consumer digital music source – and its associated player being invented and first produced by the Big Boys and then, regardless of initial claims of "Perfect Sound Forever" from their original manufacturers, made listenable by smaller specialist companies. These, at first just modifying the products of the major manufacturers (Phillips, for particular example), took the time and made the investment of effort and creative genius to develop them to their full potential.
With the hardware of digital sound now pretty much established and physical media (other than the phonograph and, surprisingly, reel-to-reel tape) quickly disappearing, the next developments in consumer audio may arise from a significantly different business model: Software design doesn't necessarily require the same large budget, physical plant, and staffing as do physical research and development or the manufacturing of physical products. Even a single individual may now, without a big company backing, create products that can revolutionize an industry. Think of the young Bill Gates, for example, and you'll know what I mean.
Great changes are undoubtedly in store. New technology is already changing our lifestyle, and it may very well change the nature of our industry, too. In the very near future, the current big companies may play a smaller role in bringing basic new products to market and new small ones, with new thoughts and a wealth of technological history to build on may grow to become the giants of our time. This is not only happening with the equipment we play our music on, but in the music, itself. Formerly great labels are fading and new, small independent ones with new and exciting artists and performances are rising to take their place.
Good. More for me, every time I sit back, close my eyes, and...